Reprinted with permission from 100 Days in Appalachia.
Last week, Axios announced the latest in a series of D.C. conversations that have become somewhat of a staple in the Capital. This week, they hosted what was billed as a conversation on the nation’s “biggest health care issues and how to tackle them,” pointing specifically to the opioid epidemic and inviting several officials from Appalachia to participate.
Covering D.C. through the lens of the region impacted most by the opioid crisis, I thought it an important conversation to be a part of. States in Central Appalachia, including West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, have boasted the nation’s highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the nation for years, and the line up looked promising.
It included West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin along with the Mayor of Huntington Steve Williams, a West Virginia city that’s been portrayed as ground zero of the epidemic. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy attended and Chief Medical Officer of the federal Department of Health and Human Services Vanila Singh.
Early Wednesday morning, I arrived at the Ajax event space, billed as the “newest industrial chic venue for the D.C. scene,” where a breakfast buffet of small informational plaques with data about the opioid crisis were scattered among piles of “superfood” mini-pancakes.
To the left of this odd buffet were shots of cleansing, freshly pressed probiotic juice served in faux prescription pill bottles. The sponsors promoted the fare as being made with “natural pain killer ingredients,” at a media-sponsored “conversation” where government officials would discuss the impact of an epidemic largely fueled by the pharmaceutical industry.
The event’s host, Axios, is an online news service that in its manifesto calls media “a scam” and “aims to present the cleanest, smartest, most efficient and trust-worthy experience for readers and advertisers alike.”
Their co-sponsor was Eli Lilly, an American pharmaceutical company that sells its products in 125 countries. Those products include Dolophine, or methadone — one of three drugs listed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration as approved for use in medication-assisted treatmentor MAT. Last year, President Trump increased the federal dollars available to pay for MAT. Lily is poised to benefit from a growing substance abuse treatment market that is forecasted to grow to worth $12.4 billion dollars by 2024.
The bizarre food and the sponsorship by a pharmaceutical giant should’ve been enough of a red flag, but I’ll admit that at the time I didn’t make the connection. I didn’t realize Eli Lilly was in the opioid business and while I’m not suggesting they have anything to do with the creation of the opioid addiction crisis in America, they’re certainly making money off the fight against it.
The event began and Mike Allen, Axios’s co-founder and executive editor, took the stage.
“This is the coolest food we’ve had since we had an education event where we had straws that looked like pencils,” he quipped.
Axios runs these events like a tight ship. There’s no room for nonsense and this time, there was no room for questions from the audience or the press either.
One by one, invited guests joined Allen on stage and each was given the opportunity to discuss not just the epidemic that’s killing thousands of Americans each year, but basically whatever they wanted.
Senator Manchin spontaneously defended his mixed voting record on party-line issues by repeating how he doesn’t vote for something that doesn’t “make sense” to him. Senator Cassidy took his time to tell everyone that President Trump can be quite “gracious” in a one-on-one setting. Axios” Allen maintained a chummy attitude and insisted every segment ended with a personal anecdote about his guest.
The only question that each guest took from the audience was from Axios’ own health reporter Caitlin Owens, who threw softball questions like “Can you tell us more about the ‘penny tax’ you introduced in the past to pay for the opioid treatment?” addressed to Manchin, or “Is there a role for Congress and Washington as a whole to be questioning how the healthcare system can be engaged in healing from the opioid epidemic?” directed at Cassidy.
Allen stood guard apparently to make sure nothing “too controversial” happened, and in one awkward exchange between Senator Cassidy and Owens, he promptly swooped in, announcing that the Senator’s word salad answer should do for an explanation.
The event was fraught with issues on two fronts. First, a marketing stunt that played on a deadly serious problem many in this country battle on a daily basis and second, with its implications for journalism at large.
From an Appalachian perspective, to call this event “tone deaf” is an understatement. It would be difficult to find a better (or worse) illustration of the utter detachment from reality of the real issues involved in tackling the opioid addiction crisis exhibited inside-the-Beltway. The sunny disposition of the invited speakers and host, and the “feel good” tone of their stories undercuts what is still an evolving, deadly and vexing problem. More than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017, of both illicit drugs and prescription opioids combined. The latest data available shows opioid overdose deaths in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia grew by more than 1,000 percent from 1999 to 2016. In Appalachia, this epidemic is not a joke, it’s not a gimmick. It’s destroyed people and families and devastated communities.
But my bigger qualm is with Axios. As a news organization, their role is to provide unbiased information or a platform to challenge those in power, not a stage for political stump speeches under a guise of a journalistic event. Not only did Wednesday’s “conversation” go against what I understand to be the purpose of putting journalists and politicians in one room, it also allowed two Senators to turn a serious event into an opportunity to promote their careers.
As a country, we’re constantly talking about this national crisis, but success stories remain confined to particular counties or states. Today, there is no working, comprehensive federal policy to address the problem yet the opioid epidemic was one of the Trump administration’s flagship priorities.
No one in the room could challenge the speakers on a single statement, or ask follow up questions. Not once were the Trump administration’s policies questioned, not once were Senators forced to defend, or criticize, the policies that so far, have had questionable results.
While the institution of journalism struggles with issues of public trust and “fake news” has become a weaponized meme of our president, I had a front row seat to an ethically problematic feel-good event. Billed as a serious conversation about a deadly serious issue, what I instead witnessed was a slick marketing stunt sponsored by a news organization in partnership with a pharmaceutical corporation with direct financial interests.
It’s bad for journalism and it’s bad for policy.
Jan Pytalski is based in Washington, D.C., and writes for 100 Days in Appalachia. Kristen Uppercue, also of 100 Days, contributed research to this report.